Summer Catch
  • Acting's Equivalent of Justin Timberlake
  • The Same Goofy-Grinned Asshole Matthew Lillard Has Always Played, and Always Will Play


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Directed By Some Guy With Pictures of Susan Sarandon Hidden In His Sock Drawer

  "Listen here, you little punk.  Hardcastle and McCormick was in syndication while you were still in frickin' diapers.  So you just keep with that goofy grin and taking your damn shirt off, and this piece of crap will turn a profit.  For God's sake, don't try to act!  You hear me, boy?!"

A Document of a Generation's Loss of the American Pastime    

        "I see great things in baseball.  It is our game.  It will repair our losses and celebrate our triumphs." 

                                                                                             Walt Whitman

        "I believe in the church of baseball...the only church that feeds the soul day-in-and-day-out is the church of baseball."

                                                                                             Annie Savoy from Bull Durham  

            Surprisingly, there are only a few great American movies about its pastime:  John Sayles' account of the Black Sox scandal and funeral song to lost innocence, Eight Men Out; Gary Cooper channeling the spirit of Lou Gehrig in The Pride of the Yankees; the more sentimental might select DeNiro's award-winning performance in Bang the Drum Slowly, or perhaps Kevin Costner's mystical Field of Dreams.  But I, for one, choose the film that taught us how to wear garters over our jock straps:  Bull Durham.

            Who can forget Susan Sarandon's part-time junior college professor/Oedipal mother-figure/delusional seductress, Annie Savoy, whose knowledge of the rhythms of Walt Whitman extended to the rhythms of a batter's swing, among other things.  Don't let George Will's stiff physics lessons misguide you; baseball is a game of poetry.  Its irregular fields and open spaces lends it to the happenstance of life, yet it's a game of precise motions that yields to grace--but it's also a game with mythological proportions of failure and despair.   Lifelong fans of the Chicago Cubs must feel a kindred pain to that of Tantalus, who yearns for refreshing drink but the water always flows away.  Or the Fenway faithful, ritually inhabiting a haunted house in which the spirits are trapped by a Green Monster.   The mythology of the Red Sox' Ruthian Curse, for Americana's sake, matches that of Orpheus's curse of his snake-bitten wife.  Orpheus commits the sin of looking back at what could have been, thus losing it forever--just like the Sox, still punished for trading the most legendary of a legends' game.

            So there's a perfect symmetry in Walt Whitman's words hovering over the best baseball movie of all time.   Ron Shelton's screenplay understands this sort of celebration and despair.   The film, I think, is about coping with mediocrity and facing the life that turned out to be much less than we imagined.  Not that there aren't singular moments of brilliance, but Bull Durham is a hymn to the constant yearning for The Greatest Moment of Our Life; we can never reclaim it, of course, but we're addicted to the pursuit of it.  Crash has his twenty-one days in The Show ("The stadiums are cathedrals," he tells us.), and his three-day wet kisses, but above all, he believes in the hanging curveball--that singular moment every ballplayer lives for.  Likewise, Annie ritually relives her deflowering, as a rose blooms again in the spring, under the guise of "educating" a young rookie.  The revelation is that sex, of the lit-candles-around-the-bathtub variety, is something you settle into, more beautiful, more patient, than that of the reckless youth.  Crash and Annie engage in foreplay vicariously through Nuke, trying to make him understand his talent, to appreciate his coming moments of brilliance, because they know all too well that the rest of his life will be defined by his pursuit of The Show.  In this way, Bull Durham might be termed The Virgin Ballplayers' Suicides--with baseball the perfect game to capture the persistent longing, brief glories, and contemplative melancholy of the loss of sexual innocence.

            Compare that to Summer Catch, in which Freddie Prinze, Jr. learns that the whole world revolves around him and his desire to make-out with Maxim covergirls.  This is my first foray into the world of Freddie Prinze make-out movies, so I'm only assuming that each of these cash machines has the same plot.  Here, Freddie is some poor schmo with family problems and a dad who doesn't believe in him, some dorky childhood buddies that stick around to idolize him, some old hard-nose that whips him into shape, a willowy make-out queen to make google eyes at, the parents of said girlfriend that work diligently to see that Freddie doesn't make-out with their daughter on a more permanent basis, a cast of colorful teammates with their own one-note comedic detail to exploit (you know, like the guy who enjoys "fat chicks"), but above all, Freddie has Matthew Lillard.  The baseball theme is nothing more than a vehicle upon which to ride the Freddie Movie Plot while constructing some lame Varsity Blues-quality male bonding gags.  And an excuse for Freddie to spend five of the first seven minutes of the movie riding around on a mower without his shirt.

            Another thing that disturbs me about this movie is the speech.  The young actors in this movie speak in muffled tones in which the words get trapped between their lips and teeth.  I think it's a generational characteristic:  young, cool, "hip" guys all speak with this same inarticulate cadence, as if they're afraid of the words coming out of their mouths.  Upon further review, this might not be an unfounded fear.  Since Summer Catch is a She's All That revue of the Kevin Costner baseball trilogy, the dialogue couldn't be more trite and unbearable.  Let's just compare these bits of wisdom from Summer Catch and Bull Durham, respectively:

"You have to allow yourself to succeed."


"You'll never make it to The Bigs with fungus on your shower shoes.  Think classy; you'll be classy.  If you win twenty in The Show, you can let the fungus grow back on your shoes.  And then the press will think you're 'colorful.'"


"If you want big rewards, you have to take big risks."


"Don't try to strike everybody out.  Strikeouts are boring, and besides that, they're fascist.  Throw some groundballs.  They're more democratic."


"You've got a bag full of talent and a head full of crap."


"C'mon Meat, you're not going to hit me because you're starting to think about it already...C'mon, Rook, show us that million dollar arm because I've got a good idea about that five-cent head of yours."


"One moment it just arrives, and everything clicks."


"I want you to breathe through your eyelids, like the Lava Lizards of the Galapagos Islands...I want you to be aware of the chakra connection between your feet and your testicles."


"Sometimes you need a little sunshine to break the ice."


"Just one more dying quail a week, and you're in Yankee Stadium."


Let's finish with this line, which has no equal in the literature of baseball:

"Baseball may be a religion full of magic, cosmic truth, and the fundamental ontological riddles of our time.  But it's also a job."


            As if Summer Catch isn't bad enough, it rips off the ballplayers-wearing-panties gag, and girls read bad poetry to ballplayers in bed.  Worse yet, Beverly D'Angelo gets a Susan Sarandon/Mrs. Robinson cameo involving a virgin ballplayer and a cucumber.  I also bet that James Earl Jones would be offended to know that the ballplayers, instead of renting an hourly-rate hotel room, just go ahead and screw at the ballfield, preferably on the bullpen mound.  Which sounds uncomfortable, but it's affordable, and the wake-up call is more reliable:  the sprinklers come on in the morning, prompting Freddie to scurry around the outfield wearing Brittany Murphy's panties.  We see a lot of Freddie shirtless, really--especially mowing the grass, which he does with considerably less skill than Forrest Gump.  In addition to all this splendor ******Spoiler Alert****** Summer Catch contains the worst ending in baseball movie history.  Freddie has a no-hitter going with one out in the ninth--which Hank Aaron is watching!--but he takes himself out of the game to chase down his anonymous Maxim covergirl so they can make-out before she decides not to get on the plane.  That, my loyal readers, is blasphemy committed against the church of baseball, and I think Annie Savoy would agree.

            So as the newest entry into the baseball/sex comedy genre, Summer Catch just doesn't grasp the metaphysical beauty of the game.  That's too bad:  I'm afraid that Summer Catch is also indicative of its target audience's understanding and appreciation of the game.  It's a game foreign to our youth's sensibilities.  Baseball mandates contemplative and scrupulous care in its details; its humbling rate of failure--even the most successful hitters fail seventy-percent of the time--requires more modesty, and perhaps shame, than we are used to.  Even with success, there is rarely any dancing or spiking or general showboating--a gentle jog around the bases will do.  These are the lessons baseball used to teach us, and I find myself  increasingly downtrodden by our youth's deficiency in Whitman's "our game."

            And this in an especially trying year for baseball:  Tony Gwynn and Cal Ripken, Jr. will both retire, heroes who now seem like vinyl records in a compact disc store.  I remember a time when a ballplayer defined a community--once in Jamaica, I told a native that I was from near Kansas City, and he replied, "Oh, you mean George Brett?"  That sort of loyalty, that sort of character, as in the days when a factory would not flee the town that fed it, have been replaced by A-Rods and Griffeys who relocate themselves with the ease of a dotcom switching domain names.  I'm sure that Kirby Puckett and Robin Yount remained loyal to their teams for personal reasons, but I'll bet that a sense of loyalty, of obligation, of a sense of community larger than themselves, was a part of that decision also.  So as I watch the Boston Red Sox and Minnesota Twins fade from pennant contention, I fear another bland, brand-name Steinbrenner/Turner World Series.  

            Could Peter O'Malley have warned us of a global future of loosened roots and unrepaid loyalty?  Whitman is right:  Baseball is our poetic register, and so I've become whimsical for the days of tee-ball and George Brett and when baseball movies were beautiful.  Heck, even at ten-years-old we knew that if there was a runner on first and a 2-1 count, you should try to put the ball on the ground to right side to execute a hit-and-run.  Those were the Bull Durham days.   Now the game is all long balls and contract holdouts and missed cut-offs.  No wonder young people don't love baseball.  But still, their lack of passion for the game is depressing--the same emotion I felt walking out of Summer Catch.        

The Pitch:
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1 Bull Durham
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  Head Over Heels
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1 Summer Catch
See It For:
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The boys conducting the auditions for the cover of next month's Stuff.